When Baconfest started in 2009, it was a small event with a 75-person capacity that was held between lunch and dinner service in the Publican’s dining room. Since then, it’s become one of the largest, most popular events in the Chicago food universe, serving thousands of guests and hosting hundreds of chefs.
As it turns 11 this year, I sat down with one of the event’s founders, Seth Zurer, to talk about its history, what’s special this year, and how much bacon they actually go through each occasion.
Zurer doesn’t have a culinary background, but he has always been a little food obsessed. He was the go-to guy among his friends for restaurant recommendations, and he has hosted, for more than a decade, an annual gathering at his home called the Logan Square Festival of Encased Meats that serves 150 pals. That’s why, when his now-business partners had a drunken idea that a festival of bacon might be a great idea, Zurer was the first person to come to mind.
“They called me and said ‘Seth, dude, we have this idea, and we want to run it by you because you know things about food … we’re not 100 percent sober,’” Zurer recalls. The original pitch: “The Burning Man of bacon.” The group revisited the idea in the daytime and concluded that “it was a good idea and not the drunken ramblings of a madman,” Zurer says.
Luckily, chef Paul Kahan of the Publican also thought it was a pretty good idea, and he agreed to host the first Baconfest in October 2009. That very first event managed to snag some chefs whose names you might recognize: Giuseppe Tentori, Pat Sheerin, Chris Pandel, Nathan Sears — and it sold out in a single day.
After a single year in, as Zurer describes it, a “weird banquet hall in Logan Square,” the event moved to its current home at the UIC Forum. The next year, it really blew up, drawing 1,600 guests and selling out in seconds, resulting in the massive, day-long porkfest that it is today. And it just kept growing. “Every year we thought, This can’t possibly go on, it’s nuts,” says Zurer, who dedicates half his year to organizing Baconfest full-time.
Occurring this April 5 and 6, Baconfest will boast three sessions (Friday dinnertime, Saturday lunchtime, and Saturday dinnertime), 4,500 ticketed guests, and more than 130 chefs. Many chefs have been coming for years, even as they move from restaurant to restaurant.
As for the true star of the event — bacon — more than four tons of that blessed meat comes from Nueske’s Bacon, the event’s most visible sponsor. The company ships its products directly to each participating chef in 50-pound boxes, all on the same day. “On Tuesday, March 26, the pork-to-human ratio in Chicago will change dramatically,” says Zurer.
This year, look out for a few new surprises, including a mezcal tasting on Saturday, featuring offerings you won’t find anywhere else in the city (like a special mezcal made with Dark Matter coffee). For the first time, cannabis dispensaries and chefs who cook with cannabis will be on site — and while CBD-infused snacks can’t be served at the Forum — chefs can talk about their creations and tell guests how to try them out. Finally, for those with VIP tickets to the Friday night session, Akahoshi Ramen (a popular local pop-up) will be debuting a special bacon ramen.
One of the most exciting parts of the event, though, is a little less porky: Baconfest’s support for the Greater Chicago Food depository. Over the years, it has donated more than $440,000 dollars to the food pantry. “We’re cognizant of the tension at the heart of a food festival: conspicuous consumption when people are hungry,” Zurer says. “So the idea that there’s a way to give back is a big value for us.”
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